School of Historical Studies

Climate Change and the Rise of an Empire

By Nicola Di Cosmo 

Did an unusually favorable climate create conditions for a new political order under Chinggis Khan?

In his recent book Global Crisis: War, Climate Change & Catas­trophe in the Seventeenth Century, Geoffrey Parker states: “although climate change can and does produce human catastrophe, few historians include the weather in their analyses.” This is generally true, and the distance between historians and the weather may not have improved (indeed, may have been underscored) by the evolution of environmental history as a separate branch of historical research. Moreover, while the collection of historical climate data has never been more robust, instances of collaboration between scientists and historians are still very few and far between. In 2006, the National Science Foundation launched a program for research on Coupled Natural and Human Systems, capturing the need to model the interaction between societies and environments. Few of the projects funded so far, however, involve a long-term historical perspective or engage actual historical questions. One of these, funded last year, is titled “Pluvials, Droughts, Energetics, and the Mongol Empire” and is led by Neil Pederson, Amy Hessl, Nachin Baatarbileg, Kevin Anchukaitis, and myself.

Revolutionary Ideas: An Intellectual History of the French Revolution

By Jonathan Israel 

A sixteenth-century painting of Charles IX in front of the Parliament of Paris on August 26,1572, attempting to justify the Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre.

How freedom of the theater promised to be a major extension of liberty

Early on in the French Revolution, in his memoir on press freedom submitted to the Estates-General in June 1789, Jean-Pierre Brissot (1754–93), later a prominent revolutionary leader, proclaimed liberty of the press “un droit naturel à l’homme.” Loathed by Maximilien Robespierre, Brissot, together with his political allies, was later guillotined in October 1793 by the Montagne, the political faction that organized the Terror of 1793–94. During 1789 and throughout the period down to the coup that brought the Montagne to power in June 1793, no one publicized the demand for full freedom of expression more vigorously than Brissot. He also raised the issue of liberty from theater censorship, something which at that time existed nowhere in Europe, or indeed anywhere else, and never had. Theater freedom mattered more for renewing “liberty” than people think, he explained, since the theater exerts a great influence  “sur l’esprit public,” a point he would develop further, he adds, were not a writer of talent—the playwright Marie-Joseph Chénier (1762–1811)—already doing so. Among the Revolution’s principal champions of free expression, this literary ally of Brissot’s was the brother of the poet André Chénier who was guillotined by the Montagne in July 1794. 

By July 1789, the month of the storming of the Bastille, the question was no longer whether revolutionary France should possess freedom of expression and of the press—all the revolutionaries then agreed that it should—but rather whether this freedom required limits. Should there be “liberté illimité de la presse” without legal responsibility for calumny or inciting violence? This posed a dilemma for the national legislature, for aside from the principle itself, there was much uncertainty and anxiety about the unpredictable consequences. Many believed the campaign to bring “philosophy” and Enlightenment to the people would fail. Press freedom and the other new rights were justified in the people’s name, and yet, not one-hundredth part of the people actually read, warned the veteran republican writer and future deputy, Louis-Sébastien Mercier (1740–1814), while only one-thousandth part read with sufficient discernment and knowledge to separate truth from falsehood. The “ordinary man, being ignorant,” he admonished, judges politicians’ reputations by popular reputation rather than talent or knowledge—with predictably disastrous results.

Pineapples in Petersburg, Cabbage Soup on the Equator

By Edyta Bojanowska 

Writer Ivan Goncharov published a detailed account of his travels on the Pallada (depicted here in an 1854 Nagasaki print) in a two-volume literary travelogue, The Frigate Pallada (1855–57). The goal of the government-funded Pallada expedition was to establish trade relations with Japan. Goncharov’s cultural  documentation of the expedition reflects a particular imperial mentality that found broad resonance among contemporary Russian readers.
Writer Ivan Goncharov published a detailed account of his travels on the Pallada (depicted here in an 1854 Nagasaki print) in a two-volume literary travelogue, The Frigate Pallada (1855–57). The goal of the government-funded Pallada expedition was to establish trade relations with Japan. Goncharov’s cultural documentation of the expedition reflects a particular imperial mentality that found broad resonance among contemporary Russian readers.

A Russian writer tours the colonial world.

Multiethnic empire? Colonialism? These aren’t topics that we associate with Russian literature. And yet, a sprawling, expansionist, multiethnic empire was a determining factor of Russian history since at least the mid-sixteenth century. 

Hundreds of ethnic groups found themselves within Russia’s borders, making ethnic Russians, in the census of 1897, a minority in their own empire. Among modern times, the Russian empire rivaled the British one in size, and at various points included Finland, the Baltics, Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, the Caucasus region, Central Asia, Siberia, the Far East, and Alaska. To this day, as a result of this process, the Russian Federation remains territorially the largest country on earth.

In recent decades, the history of Russia’s imperial expansion and management has come into greater focus. But this empire’s cultural self-image remains elusive. What were the cultural echoes of this process? With what images and ideas did Russian literary classics dress up (or dress down) the empire? What are the Russian equivalents of E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India or Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness?

Contrary to its popular image, Russian literature has long grappled with questions of multiethnicity, colonization, and imperial expansion. Such issues predominated not only in Russian popular culture, but also evoked diverse engagements from all major Russian writers of the tsarist era, running the full gamut from propagandistic to anti-colonial. These writers include such major figures as Pushkin, Lermontov, Dostoevsky, Leskov, Chekhov, and Tolstoy. Sometimes, the imperial themes of their well-known works have been ignored. At other times, the texts that engage these themes, though popular in their own time, have been sidelined in the process of canonization—especially as commandeered by the Soviet authorities, which by and large sought to minimize both tsarist and Soviet imperialisms or to portray them as strictly benevolent. 

Britain’s Moment in Palestine

By Michael J. Cohen 

Extracts from Churchill’s Cabinet memo, warning against implementing the Land clauses of the 1939 White Paper. Christmas Day, 1939.
Extracts from Churchill’s Cabinet memo, warning against implementing the Land clauses of the 1939 White Paper. Christmas Day, 1939.

How the first Arab-Israeli war became inevitable

The British Mandate in Palestine may be divided roughly into four distinct periods.

1. 1915–1920: In February 1915, a small Turkish force, led by German officers, managed to cross the Sinai desert and reach the Suez Canal, the imperial artery to the “jewel in the (British) Crown”—India. This shattered Britain’s previous strategic conception that no modern army could attack the canal from the North, and led her to move her defense line north, to Palestine. In November 1917, the British issued the Balfour Declaration, which offered to help the Zionists establish a Jewish national home in Palestine—provided that nothing was done to “prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.”

At one of the most critical junctures of the war, the Declaration served many purposes, not the least of which was as a propaganda tool: it harnessed for Britain the alleged, all-powerful influence of international Jewry (the cabinet feared that the Germans were about to preempt them with a Declaration of their own). It also served British military and strategic interests. Britain’s Zionist proxies enabled the government to demand Palestine solely for itself (thereby finessing the French out of Palestine, as had been agreed in the Sykes-Picot share-out of May 1916). President Wilson was persuaded by prominent American Zionists to agree to the Declaration, in effect, to a British occupation of Palestine, even if still under Turkish rule.

Ellsworth Kelly's Dream of Impersonality

By Yve-Alain Bois 

Ellsworth Kelly's Train Landscape (1952–53) refers to the colors of fields seen from a train. © Ellsworth Kelly

How things that look apparently very simple are in fact much more complex than they seem

Ellsworth Kelly is one of the very first artists whose work I liked. Perhaps he was second, just after Piet Mondrian. One of the things I asked Kelly after we finally met and became friends, close to a quarter of a century ago, was why he had not answered a fan letter that I had written to him in my teens. He remembered the letter. He had received it at a time when he felt isolated, bypassed by a new generation of artists, and he had been struck by the fact that it came from a French teenager living in the middle of nowhere—he thought he might even have kept it. Since Kelly is a demon archivist, he found the darn letter, and he gave me a copy of it, which, unlike him, I immediately misplaced. But I read it, and it was humbling. First, because I realized I had misdated it in my memory, placing it three years too early—probably because the main event it described, my first encounter with his works, at a show of his lithographs at the Galerie Adrien Maeght in Paris, dated from even earlier to 1965. Second, because it was sheer adolescent drivel. At the time of the letter, Kelly was for me the purest representative of pure abstraction, whatever that is supposed to be.

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